1959-68 Revisited: Nina Simone

1959-68 Revisited: Nina Simone

While writing about Ray Charles and how nobody sounds like him, I knew I wanted to listen to Nina Simone, next. While Nina doesn't sound like Ray, she created music in a decently broad range of genre and sound, much like Mr. Charles. I had vague hopes that, in becoming better acquainted with another artist with a versatile sound, I would gain some perspective I could apply to both.

The current One Man Academy (OMA) project is listening to the Grammy's Album of the Year nominees and re-choosing winners, absent of historical context. In the 1959-68 Revisited series, I'm relistening to some of my favorite artists from that time period in more depth.

Spotify playlist for this post: OMAs 1959-68: Nina Simone

If you only listen to one song: "I'll Look Around"

I hoped listening to Ms. Simone's music would provide some clarity; unfortunately, it did not. In fact, some of it just offered more confusion. I was surprised at the number of songs and albums I encountered that I would categorize as not-very-good to outright bad. For what it's worth, though, many of those songs and albums felt like a departure so large, it made me wonder if her music studio or management team were pushing decisions onto her.

Fortunately, Nina Simone has a lot of really great work, some of which is in the playlist above.

I'll Look Around
"I'll Look Around", especially as performed Nina, is a ridiculously pretty song[1]. I first came to know "I'll Look Around" via Madeleine Peyroux, but I probably hadn't heard the song in 5 to 10 years. When the first bits of Nina's version hit me, my heart recognized the song before my brain could place it. I'll Look Around is a favorite and there's something quite lovely about Nina's version.

The Other Woman
Nina performs "The Other Woman" at Carnegie Hall and the audience applauds enthusiastically when she lauches into it. The lyrics are below:

The other woman finds time to manicure her nails
The other woman is perfect where her rival fails
And she's never seen with pin curls in her hair

The other woman enchantes her clothes with French perfume
The other woman keeps fresh cut flowers in each room
There are never toys scattered everywhere

And when her baby comes to call
He'll find her waiting like a lonesome queen
'cause when she's by his side
It's such a change from old routine

But the other woman will always cry herself to sleep
The other woman will never have his love to keep
And as the years go by the other woman
Will spend her life alone

To my modern ears, this is a weird song to like. It's a weird song to like an oh-my-god-I'm-applauding-as-this-song-starts-because-I-love-this-song-so-much type of like. A song like this, today, would likely fall into one of the following categories:

  • A woman describing how she's sad because her man is cheating.
  • A woman describing how she's mad at her man because her man is cheating.
  • A woman describing how she's mad at another woman because her man is cheating.
  • A woman describing how she's leaving her man, because her man is cheating.

In any event, it's likely the narrator of the song would be talking about their own life. "The Other Woman" has an omniscient 3rd person narrating, and it's easy to feel a sense of pity and/or judgement, directed toward the Other Woman, coming from that narrator. To me, the lyrics either read like a warning, "Don't be the Other Woman, ladies", or it reads like a consolation, "Don't worry, main women, and don't be jealous of the Other Woman... she is super sad and un-loved."

When I hear the song, I wonder where's the empowerment, and why isn't anyone holding this mostly-unseen dude accountable for his actions?

(It's worth noting that for another decade, or so, it will be quite legal for banks to deny women credit, just because they're women... the lack of financial freedom, not to mention social freedom, probably created some weird social dynamics.)

I don't think "The Other Woman" is a bad song, but it is a song that's sad at a quality and quantity that precludes my ability to be spontaneous applause levels of happy when I hear it. I can't imagine the world that created the song; nor can I imagine the world that created an audience that loved it so.

Mississippi Goddam
I also can't imagine the world that created "Mississippi Goddam".

Nina says in the song "this is a show tune..." and I'm trying to imagine a world in which a show tune is a meaningful concept to listeners.

I'm trying to imagine a world in which being black, as a matter of legislation, is illegal. This concert was in March/April of 1964, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 wasn't signed into law unil July.

I'm trying to imagine a world, absent of the desensitizing effects of so-called social media and a literally every-waking-minute-of-the-day news cycle, in which a Nina Simone steps onto a stage and sings...

Yes you lied to me all these years
You told me to wash and clean my ears
And talk real fine just like a lady
And you'd stop calling me Sister Sadie

Oh but this whole country is full of lies
You're all gonna die and die like flies
I don't trust you any more
You keep on saying 'Go slow!'

I truly can't imagine it.[2]

Who's in that audience? Are they shocked? Are any of them white? Are they uncomfortable? Are they thinking, That's okay, she's not talking about *me*... Are any of them black? Are they uncomfortable? Are they worried about appearing too enthusiastic about the song? Are they legitametly unenthusiastic about the song?

Now that the history books have been written, it's easy to be very reductive of the narrative: slavery, Martin Luther King, Barack Obama. But in the middle of that narrative, the outcomes were probably very uncertain. And in midst of that uncertainty, you had real people living out their real lives, messy and tangled as they were, wondering what exactly would happen and how much of it would occur during their lifetimes. One of those people was Nina Simone, who sang songs like "Mississippi Goddam", in front of live audiences, as the Civil Rights Bill of 1964 was making its way through Congress, unsure of what the song would become, unsure of what would become of The Civil Rights movement, unsure of what would become of her and her life, as a black American, and also as a musician, and also just because, you know... life. But she sang the song, in front of a live audience, and we can listen to the recording.

"Mississippi Goddam" makes me think all of those things, and it hurts my head.

  1. Music by George Cory; lyrics by Douglass Cross ↩︎

  2. Thankfully. It's nice to remember, ocassionally, that by almost any social measure, 2017 is better than 1964. ↩︎